This blog is inspired by an article in the May 2014 National Geographic titled “The New Food Revolution”. It’s about how we might hope to feed the 2 billion additional souls we expect the planet to support by 2050. I’ll give you the raw scores first, then the commentary.
In the USA we eat about 18% of the food grown, as opposed to feeding it to farm animals for meat, or turning it into biofuel. In India, the figure is 89%. Here is the return on feeding food to farm animals – you can have either:
100 calories of grain
40 calories of milk
22 calories of eggs
12 calories of chicken meat
10 calories of pork, OR
3 calories of beef.
Additionally, 25% of our food calories are wasted – mainly to scrap in the USA but largely to poor storage conditions in the 3rd world. All these inefficiencies are tragic both in terms of lost food but in terms of environmental damage and load on the planet. The article does a good job discussing those factors.
I was a vegetarian for a year in my youth – mainly because my siblings were doing it and I went along for the ride. I’ve thought a lot about it since then, and struggle to reduce my meat consumption. The biggest lesson from this experience was how hard it is to get enough protein without meat – even with eggs and milk still in your diet. My first disappointment with this Geographic article is that they seem to imply that people eat meat or beef due to preference or prosperity, rather than because we need protein. You can get calories relatively easily (as my waistline will woefully attest) – protein is harder.
The discussion ought to be on efficient ways to make protein. Ironically, a principal protein source for Vegans (who avoid milk and eggs) is tofu from soybeans — ironic in that you then become entangled in the genetically modified organism (GMO) debate and the antipathy towards monopolies held by Monsanto and the like, big agribusiness farms, etc. and my sense is that statistically there is a strong correlation between those two opposing value systems.
But short of giving up meat entirely, raising pork is 3x as efficient as beef, and chicken is 4x. Interestingly, the health benefits track the same way, with beef being linked to the worst cholesterol and gout problems, and chicken being better for you. So, the western affinity for beef is a clear blip on the target radar screen for improving food/protein growth efficiency and reducing health issues and environmental footprint. Surprised that they didn’t give numbers on the efficiency of raising fish for protein – I’m guessing fish is even better both in terms of efficiency and health compared to chicken, until you get into issues like ocean pollution and the accumulation of mercury.
Another interesting correlation, at least superficially, is the ethical ramifications of eating “intelligent animals” scales roughly the same. You think of mammals generally as more intelligent and emotionally warm than birds, whom are themselves higher up the ladder than fish. Most of us will not eat cats, dogs, and dolphins for either ethical or squeamishness reasons. Personally I’ve had a lot of interaction with chickens, and common birds, and I feel a lot less guilty about eating poultry than I do eating pig meat (which I’d admittedly have a hard time giving up). But then enter the picture the modern understanding of the intelligence of species like the African Gray Parrot, and the simple classification system breaks down. For some reason the western pallet avoids an abundant source of protein that some parts of the world prize highly, not because of ethics but because of squeamishness – insects. Bugs (at least processed to veil the source, as our butchers are doing now) are heavily in our future, if food supplies get tight. Past articles in the Geographic have discussed this topic, but surprisingly this particular article does not touch on the subject at all.
I know enough about eastern religions to be dangerous. The Hindus avoid eating meat on ethical grounds. My question is shouldn’t a belief in reincarnation reduce the tragedy of killing another being? I find more empathy in the Native American point of view of giving thanks to the buffalo for the sacrifice our brother spirits are making for us, and feeling the responsibility to value and use every scrap of the buffalo’s body, wasting nothing out of respect for their sacrifice.
So according to this article, our future holds more and more people, with the third world standard of living rising with richer diets, and developed worlds eating less and less inefficient meats such as beef. Again, this view ignores the basic tenets of Malthus and others that say human kind will reproduce to consume all available resources, and continue to reproduce past the comfort level, impoverishing themselves to satisfy the need to reproduce. Then, since our food supply is not steady, any fluctuation in the supply leads us over the cliff edge and directly to starvation and disaster.
So I see the root problems as our undisciplined reproductive habits and unbridled population growth, and any effort toward “efficient” food production will simply accommodate this trend. Developed countries have the lowest birth rates, and I see this as a good thing. I understand this happens because the elderly are more secure in retirement without having to depend on their descendants to support them in old age. That’s a societal/culture issue we need to work on globally.
I do think we need to work on reducing our environmental footprint though, emulating the Native American respect for making the most of the sacrifices that sustain us. Beef, pork, chicken, veggie, or vegan? It’s not just a matter of taste, or even health, it is a measure of our green-ness where we put ourselves on that spectrum of choices.